In a press conference on Monday, Greenville, Miss., Mayor Errick Simmons stood by his tyrannical order criminalizing drive-in church services, where parishioners worship in their cars with the windows up. Greenville police infamously ticketed attendees at a drive-in service last Wednesday and then stalked another drive-in service on Thursday. Two religious freedom law firms filed lawsuits in response, claiming Simmons’s order violates the Constitution and is unnecessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The mayor remained unmoved, however.
“In order to protect our residents and flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases specifically linked to church gatherings, the Greenville City Council on April 7 order stands and will stand at this time,” the mayor said. Then he shifted the buck to Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.), who has said that the government does not have the right to shut down church services.”We need to be bold and we need bold state leadership and partnership during this time. Thus we ask our governor for definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot services in light of CDC guidelines and Mississippi’s shelter-in-place order.”
Simmons, knowing he faces serious backlash, announced that the city will not be demanding the $500 from the drive-in service attendees ticketed on Wednesday. He also said the city decided not to enforce the order on Easter Sunday.
“On Easter or Resurrection Day, we told our officers to stand down, because we wanted people to enjoy one of the holiest days of the year,” Simmons said. “That’s our way of loving our faith-based communities and also our way of understanding that ‘by his stripes, we are healed.'”
Simmons insisted that the order does not violate citizens’ “right to worship” or their “right to assemble.”
Arthur Scott, the pastor of the church were attendees were fined $500 each, and Charles E. Hamilton Jr., the pastor of the church police stalked on Thursday, would beg to disagree.
“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Scott said.
“What is harmful about people being in their cars listening to preaching with their windows up?” Hamilton asked.
Both pastors have retained legal counsel to hold Simmons accountable for violating their constitutional rights.
“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” Ryan Taylor, director of the Center for Christian Ministries at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the firm representing Scott in a lawsuit, said in a statement. “In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”
ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker responded to Simmons’ statements on Monday.
“It’s disappointing to see the city of Greenville continue this unconstitutional, unwarranted ban on drive-in church services,” Tucker said. “This church has taken on creative ways to minister to people in its community without access to social media. The city’s order is baseless, and so we intend to continue aggressively pursuing our case against it in court.”
The religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent Simmons a demand letter, urging him to retract the order. First Liberty represents Hamilton and claims that the mayor’s order violated the pastor’s right to free exercise of religion by singling out churches for unusual restrictions.
Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute, also condemned Simmons’ comments.
“Mayor Simmons was repeatedly pressed about whether churches who abide by CDC guidelines and host drive-in church will face the specter of the police arriving on scene to disperse those peaceably assembled in worship. Rather than reassure his churches that this will not happen, the mayor reaffirmed his unlawful order, renewed the city’s commitment to enforcing it, and defended the decision of police to ticket people just because their car sat on a church parking lot,” Dys said. “The mayor continues to single out and target the churches of Greenville.”
Simmons can deny it all he likes, but the ban on drive-in church services clearly violates the First Amendment.
Press Conference Regarding Council Order on Church Services
Posted by City of Greenville, Mississippi – Government on Monday, April 13, 2020
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.